Picture this: It's almost dinnertime and you're starting to get hungry. Your cupboards could pass for Old Mother Hubbard's so cooking is out. Fast food has lost its charm, pizza sounds passé ... what you really want is a delicious meal served by someone else who will also handle cleanup. No problem. That's what restaurants are for, right? Ah, but you don't have anyone to go to dinner with you. Now what do you do?
I'm betting that most of you will not go out to a nice—or even mid-range—restaurant by yourself. My (completely unscientific) survey of singles netted nothing but "Not a chance" responses. There's a "stigma" to dining alone, I was told. It's uncomfortable, it's weird, it's wrong.
Just because you don't have a dining companion, does that mean you should be relegated to sitting in your car eating out of a paper bag? I think not. Dining out alone does not make you a loser—it makes you a restaurant patron. There's a big difference (especially in this economy). There's good food out there, people, not to mention great atmosphere and a good time to be had. Don't let it pass you by just because you're on your own.
What is everyone so afraid of, anyway? Being turned away at the door? Ashley Wilkerson, assistant general manager of Coast (fabulous seafood in a rather posh district north of Dallas), assured me, "Solo diners are welcome. That's no problem at all, we're happy to seat someone by themselves." They do, too—according to Ashley, Coast seats a respectable number of single diners.
Then what's the problem? Is the wait staff is going to laugh and point? Not if they want a tip. Will other diners rise up and mock you from the superiority of their well-populated tables? Not likely. Most people are too self-absorbed to pay attention to anyone but themselves and their party. Odds are you'll have an experience akin to Cassie, who described her recent first-ever solo dining experience as "uneventful."
It might even be fun. Case in point: During a recent visit to St. Paul, Minnesota, I dined at a bona fide national landmark: Mickey's Diner. A diner is the perfect place to eat alone; odds are excellent you won't be the only one. Snagging the last available seat at the counter, I joined a motley crew of customers who turned out to be a cheerful, chatty group. I spent my entire visit watching the whirling dervish of a cook crank out order after order on a grill about the size of my suitcase, all the while carrying on multiple conversations with customers and staff. It was breakfast and a show, all for about ten dollars. If I had ordered room service that morning, I would have missed a wonderful time.
Chew on This
As dining alone is not something that comes naturally to most of us, here are five choices you might want to consider before heading out.
- Choose your restaurant. It's probably best to avoid overly romantic places that cater to courting couples. (You know the ones.) I also prefer to avoid the kind of spot where an unruly child is apt to climb over from the neighboring booth into my personal space, but some people enjoy that kind of thing. Cuisine, location, price, and atmosphere are all factors in this obvious but necessary step.
- Choose your time. In my neck of the woods, 7:00 on a Saturday night is prime time for dates. That may or may not bother you, but if you're easing into the world of solo dining you might want to start with a less crowded hour, if only to reduce the time spent waiting for a table.
- Choose your props. You may not actually need any ... I like to eavesdrop on those around me, make up stories about the other diners, and so on, all of which can be done without paraphernalia. However, it's perfectly acceptable to bring a book, magazine, or phone along so you can look busy. (But PLEASE do not spend the entire evening talking on the phone. The rest of the restaurant does not want to hear your conversation. And they will. Oh yes, they will.)
- Choose your seat. If you're a people watcher or nature lover, ask for a table with a view. Ashley says people frequently do just that at Coast, which boasts a fountain view as well as some great spots for spying on others. Some restaurants have open kitchens with space where you can sit and watch the chefs at work. If you'd prefer to blend into the woodwork, ask for a table in a corner. It's completely up to you: this is your experience and you're paying for it. Do what makes you happy.
- Choose to enjoy yourself. Abraham Lincoln said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be" and he was right. A good attitude makes all the difference. Look on your evening out as an adventure. If all goes well, terrific! If it all goes horribly wrong you'll have a great story to tell.
Kevin Finch, executive director of Big Table (www.big-table.com), is also a restaurant critic in the Northwest (U.S.), which makes him a frequent diner familiar with the restaurant biz. He offered the following suggestions for becoming a successful solo diner:
- Become a regular at a couple places you really like and fit your budget. Get to know the names of those there and tip well. You'll become an honored guest and often be included in the ‘family' that develops in the restaurant.
- Pay attention and compliment the wait staff/chef on the food or details of the service. Over time you might well get extra attention rather than less. Restaurant folks tend to love people who are truly interested in what they work so hard to provide.
- If a restaurant is popular and hard to get reservations, go early or late when the wait staff is less pushed and would have time to interact.
- Consider taking a seat in the bar—not necessarily to drink, but to eat. Many restaurants now have bars that are the center of the action and overlook the kitchen. Other single diners might be there as well as other regulars.
- Consider using social network sites like Facebook to post a plan to dine out and seek others who might want to join in. I've done this several times while traveling and connected with family/friends I wouldn't have thought to invite out for a meal.
Did you notice the theme in Kevin's tips? They're all about building relationships ... with restaurant staff, "virtual" friends, even other diners. Some are long-term, some just long enough to clean your plate, but the point is that dining alone doesn't have to be lonely. When you think about it, every meal is eaten with One who loves you. I sometimes make a date with God and spend my time—silently, so as not to frighten anyone—chatting with him over dinner. (We've been known to go to the movies together, too.) Don't let lack of a (human) companion keep you from enjoying a good meal. A table for one can be fabulous.
Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends. She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life. Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.
**This column first published on November 11, 2010.